For fans of small, fast AMGs, the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 sets a new precedent for the subcompact performance segment. Whereas the previous-generation CLA-Class only had a full-fat, yet somewhat underwhelming, CLA 45, the second-gen CLA gets a new entry-level AMG model to wage war against the segment's stalwart, the Audi S3, and another relative newcomer, the BMW M235i Gran Coupe. Like those, under the hood you'll find a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, augmented by a turbocharger to produce 302 horsepower. This is sent to all four corners via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, making the CLA 35 an on-paper carbon copy of its competitors. So what sets it apart from its US rivals? Slinky four-door coupe styling for starters, baby-CLS-Class looks, and inside, the latest MBUX infotainment suite and more tech than a '90s Silicon Valley start-up. Keen to show the world that the CLA 35 is something unique, despite its similarities to rivals, Mercedes afforded us a week with a Sun Yellow example.
After launching new for the 2020 model year, the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 enters 2021 almost entirely unaltered. Like the rest of the CLA-Class lineup in the USA, the CLA 35 gets freshly added blind-spot monitoring as standard. A $950 bump in price accompanies the upgrade, but the CLA 35 is otherwise unchanged.
See trim levels and configurations:
|AMG CLA 35 4MATIC||
2.0L Turbo Inline-4 Gas
As a hater of four-door coupe designs, the AMG CLA 35 shouldn't sit well with me, and yet, it's gorgeous to behold. A mini CLS in appearance, it gets sleek LED headlights, the AMG twin-blade front grille, twin power domes on the hood, and AMG-styled bumpers front and rear. The windows are frameless, the roof a standard-fit panoramic sunroof, and housed within mildly blistered arches, 18-inch wheels can be swapped out for a trio of 19 inchers. At the rear, a pronounced diffuser plays host to twin exhaust exits. The linework flows subtly and every panel fluidly meshes into the next; but in standard form, the CLA 35 is a little tame. A combination of the $1,550 AMG Aerodynamics Package and $750 AMG Night Package rectifies this with more aggressive lips and winglets on the front bumper, black mirror caps, and a black lip spoiler on the rear deck - all of which graced the bodywork of our tester to make it neck-snappingly attractive.
On paper, the CLA 35 is a subcompact 4-door coupe, while the A 35 is the sedan equivalent. But despite its classification as a relatively small car, at 184.8 inches in length, the CLA 35 is longer than a standard C-Class and nearly a full six inches longer than the BMW M235i Gran Coupe. The wheelbase falls short of the C-Class, however, at 107.4 inches. At 55.3 inches tall and with a body width of 73.1 inches, the CLA 35 appears low and wide, the wing mirrors bringing the latter figure to 78.7 inches. Ringing in at 3,505 pounds on the scales, the CLA 35 is no heavyweight, weighing precisely 100 lbs less than BMW's equivalent. It's clear that while the vehicle itself may be classified as something small, its dimensions are anything but.
Mercedes' chosen color palette for the 2021 CLA 35 remains unaltered from last year's, which fortunately means that the striking Sun Yellow paint worn by our tester is a no-cost option, accompanying Polar White and Night Black on the cost-free list. A further eight hues add to the final price, including characterful shades like Patagonia Red and Denim Blue metallics at $720 apiece. For the more demure buyers, a range of whites, silvers, and blacks include Digital White, Iridium Silver, Mountain Grey, Mojave Silver, and Cosmos Black at the aforementioned $720, while the most wallet-heavy option is the matte-finish designo Mountain Grey Magno at $2,500 - a striking color that's bound to scratch all too easily and be near-impossible to repair. We'd steer clear, and in fact, stay away from any of the pay-to-play options; Sun Yellow is striking and plays brilliantly off the black styling elements of the AMG Aerodynamics Package.
Anything with an AMG badge has historically been a rear-wheel-drive hooligan that burnt through tires no sooner than you'd left the neighborhood on your morning commute. That's no longer the case, particularly here, as the CLA 35 employs the use of an all-wheel drivetrain. Combined with a dual-clutch transmission, this helps the junior AMG cover 0-60 mph in a claimed 4.8 seconds, one-tenth slower than BMW's own claim for the M235i Gran Coupe. But numbers don't tell the tale of how the AMG feels quicker from the bum dyno, or how the AMG feels better to pilot. Yes, the day has arrived when a Mercedes product is a keener driver's tool than the BMW equivalent.
However, while it may be keen, it's still lukewarm. The AWD system is front-wheel-biased, and the handling is only sharp so long as you can keep front brake temperatures down - such is the nature of a brake-biased torque vectoring system. Don't think we're being overly harsh, though, because the CLA 35 is a fun tool to blast from A to B in, with a keen chassis and an eager engine, and should the opportunity present itself, a top speed of 155 mph is in the cards, limited by the onboard computer.
Once renowned for high-displacement V8s of the most aurally delightful nature, Mercedes-AMG has now become the king of turbocharging. That's why, under the hood of the CLA 35, you'll find a transverse-mounted four-cylinder engine with a displacement of just 2.0-liters. But with the aid of turbocharging, it plates up a healthy 302 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, besting the Audi S3 on both metrics and falling behind the BMW rival only in torque. The 4MATIC AWD system is the recipient of those figures, but not before a seven-speed AMG Speedshift dual-clutch automatic transmission gets its grubby mitts on them.
A descendant of the engine that was last used in the previous-generation CLA 45, the motor relies less on boost here, making it a pleasant partner on the daily commute. Peak torque arrives between 2,000 and 3,000 rpm, while peak power arrives at a brief range between 5,800 and 6,100 rpm on the tachometer, lending the CLA 35 a naturally aspirated feeling to its power delivery. It's refreshing, and although the initial launch seems a little underwhelming with no true launch control system available, it tends to pick up speed rapidly and always has enough in reserve to kick on a little more when called upon - the same cannot be said for the BMW M235i Gran Coupe.
The dual-clutch transmission on duty here is still of an old sort that can be traced back to the previous-generation CLA, and the CLA 35 has not benefited from the new eight-speeder you'll find in the 45. As such, it still suffers a little at low speeds, where it's a little clunky and a little indecisive, even if the steering-wheel-mounted paddles are used in lieu of the computer programming. It's fine for the daily grind, but when hustling through tight twisty sections of road, it requires a little preempting on the driver's part to ensure the right gear is on hand.
On the whole, the powertrain is a decent one, though, only let down truly by the falsified soundtrack pumped through the sound system. Fortunately, in its sportier drive modes, the pops and cracks from the exhaust are genuine, which makes for Cheshire grins every time you lift-off the throttle.
When the last AMG-tweaked CLA-Class was let loose on the world, I was one of the most vocal about its handling dynamics, chastising a poorly-tuned chassis and suspension, an over-reliance on the front brakes and tires, and a numbness that meant you could never trust it when entering a corner. Someone at Mercedes clearly got the memo, because the new CLA 35 is a quantum leap forward for the brand in this regard.
As a performance model, it still toes the line of what's considered overly-firm, but the available three-stage damping of the AMG Ride Control as equipped to our tester gave the CLA 35 genuine pliancy in Comfort mode. In Sport and Sport +, the suspension is notably harsh and is best reserved for track days rather than on the street, but even in its softest of settings, there's a level of support that we welcome with open arms. Pair this with dampers that ebb and flow with the surface of the road rather than trying to bludgeon it into submission, and the CLA 35 is a livable daily companion.
The steering is still numb, but the responses from the front end are keen and you can trust the chassis to deliver the same output to your input, time and time again. We'll credit AMG's engineers for this, as the chassis now works in harmony with the tires and brakes, instead of using them as a meatshield with which to defend itself. Because the suspension responds better than ever, the tires don't scrub off nearly as quickly, and you can rely on mechanical grip and chassis balance instead of needing the brake-biased torque vectoring - dubbed ESP Dynamic Cornering Assist by Mercedes - to overcompensate on turn-in.
Push too hard, too fast, and the brakes will overheat as they try to keep turn-in sharp, but drive with a semblance of sanity, and the CLA 35 will behave in a predictable manner that makes it fun but not unruly on a backroad. At its limits, the CLA 35 still defaults to understeer when pushed too hard, but since this AWD system is still so heavily front-biased and is unable to make use of genuine torque vectoring, it would be unfair to expect the same sort of tail-waggery as you'll find in the more potent CLA 45, which uses genuine rear-wheel torque vectoring to ensure drift compatibility.
Turbocharging is good for the soul, and if you believe manufacturers and government agencies, it's good for the environment, too. To that end, the EPA suggests the CLA 35 will gently sip on its premium unleaded gasoline at a rate of 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined. While that's more than likely attainable mileage if you're driving Miss Daisy, this is a Mercedes product that begs to be driven rather than gently guided to your destination. It might have a meager displacement, but the engine drinks like a Spring Break attendee when you're on the loud pedal all the time, and we saw combined figures as poor as 13.8 mpg. We don't doubt you can get close to the EPA figures, but be prepared to pony up if you want to enjoy all the CLA 35 has to offer, and a full 13.5-gallon gas tank won't last you very long.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the CLA 35's interior. One, that it's a technological marvel dominated by screens and head-up displays that can be customized in any one of a million ways, or two, that it's overly complicated and overwrought in its design. We fall into the former camp, but will happily admit that the dash is a little too cluttered for our liking. Still, the MBUX infotainment system and accompanying twin-screen displays are lovely, and the quality of everything is high. Gloss black plastics may be a magnet for fingerprints, but with voice control for just about everything, you'll seldom need to lift a finger from the steering wheel. We're particularly enamored by the optional AMG Performance front seats, and the 64-color ambient LED lighting lets you customize the interior in any number of ways ranging from the serenity of a zen garden to the kitschy glamor of a strip club. Either way you look at it, the CLA 35's cabin has a sense of occasion about it, and the step up in quality from years gone by makes it feel like a genuine Mercedes product rather than some cut-rate attempt at perceived luxury.
While for many, four points of ingress and egress makes the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 a sports sedan, it's really a four-door coupe. It's the final word of that sentence that should tell you that, while capable of seating five, those in the back won't exactly be thankful for the opportunity as the 35.7 inches of headroom is guaranteed to ruffle a few hairstyles while 33.9 inches of legroom is less than ideal. The front occupants get 38.5 inches of headspace, though, which is more than enough for my six-foot-one-inch frame with room to spare, although the heavily-bolstered AMG Performance sports seats specced in our tester meant that ingress and egress required some finesse to avoid scuffing the leather upholstery, and those of a larger frame may find them a little too claustrophobic. Nevertheless, the front seats provide enough adjustment to get comfortably positioned and the steering wheel's range of reach adjustment is vast. But visibility is limited by the slender rear windscreen and the tapering bodywork, making it awkward to place the car in tight spots without the aid of parking sensors and cameras.
By default, the seats in the CLA 35 are upholstered in either MB-Tex synthetic leather upholstery in a combination of black and Neva Grey, or a simple black scheme made up of MB-Tex with Dinamica suede inserts, highlighted by sporty red stitching. Genuine leather can be specified at $1,450 in solid tones of Black or Bahia Brown, while two-tone combinations include Black and Classic Red or Black and Titanium Grey. These genuine leather options do, however, require heated seats to be equipped at a minimum fee of $500. Our tester wore the base Neva Grey/Black MB-Tex on the AMG Performance seats, which was surprisingly classy and gave the cabin an air of spaciousness. Standard red seatbelts can be swapped for black items at no cost.
In terms of trim inserts, Mercedes defaults to aluminum in either a linear, longitudinal, or AMG design - the latter alternating between bare and black striping - all at no cost. Natural Grain Brown Walnut or Black Linden are the $325 wooden alternatives, but the Brown Walnut can't be specified with the striking red and black leather, and both seem a little mature for a car with such youthful appeal as the CLA 35.
The 11.6-cubic-foot figure Mercedes claims as the trunk capacity may seem a little substandard when the BMW M235i GC's trunk can hold 15.2 cubes, despite that car's smaller footprint. But the design of this generation CLA means the trunk aperture is broad so it's easy to load items. Those items can't be very tall, though, but the lengthy cargo bay is wide as well, so it can easily play host to several large items of luggage. In a pinch, 40/40/40-split folding rear seatbacks enable the fitment of longer items without sacrificing too much seating capacity.
In-cabin storage is better than rivals, as not only is the glovebox of a decent size, but the center console has flexible storage options including a tray beneath the center stack in which a wireless charging pad can be specified and two large cupholders that can be hidden beneath a sliding cover. The center armrest also opens to reveal a semi-spacious storage cavity, and the door pockets are large, although won't cater to very fat items. The center panel of the rear seatbacks folds forward to reveal two cupholders for rear occupants.
It may be classified as the entry-level AMG from the German brand, but the CLA 35 is well-equipped from the get-go and can be further equipped to eye-watering price levels. As standard, a panoramic sunroof, 12-way power-adjustable seats with memory, and dual-zone automatic climate control benefit comfort while ambient LED lighting and cruise control add to the overall package. The options list is where the fun happens, however, as you can specify everything from heating and ventilation for the front seats to keyless access, auto-dimming mirrors, a head-up driver display, adaptive damping, and the AMG Drive Unit. The latter arrived on our tester, equipping the steering wheel with miniature digital displays housed within rotary controllers that allow easy changing of drive modes and powertrain characteristics on the fly - a nifty touch, but one that clutters the steering wheel substantially.
In terms of ADAS systems, standard fit items include blind-spot assist for 2021, and driver attention assist, but numerous options are available, including a dashcam, parking sensors with parking assist, semi-autonomous adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, automatic emergency braking, and a surround-view camera system, which is useful for countering the limited visibility in tight spots.
Four letters should tell you all you need to know: MBUX. That's Mercedes' latest infotainment suite, in the CLA comprising twin 10.25-inch digital displays spanning two-thirds of the dashboard. One takes on the role of instrumentation while the other fulfills its duties as an infotainment screen, boasting standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, Bluetooth connectivity, and an HD Radio receiver. Other available features include navigation, augmented video for the aforementioned guidance, in-car Wi-Fi, and additional services like TuneIn Radio and SiriusXM All Access, while audio can be channeled through a 12-speaker Burmester sound system in place of the base setup, which is rather underwhelming.
MBUX is a revelation though. Not only can both screens and the head-up display be configured in innumerable ways for every ounce of information you can consume, but you can control the whole suite via either touch, a touchpad central controller with haptic feedback, steering-mounted touchpads and buttons, or, the MBUX's pièce de résistance, the best voice control algorithm we've yet to experience that will adjust everything from seat heating to the roof sunblind, and the infotainment functions you'd expect it to.
Any new product will have its share of teething problems, and the CLA 35 has been relatively good in this regard, with two minor recalls in 2020 for illumination of interior switchgear and the potential transmission of an incorrect location to emergency services, an issue which has also affected certain 2021 models. Complaints from our side are few, aside from fingerprint-prone gloss materials and slightly oversensitive forward collision warning.
Mercedes' standard warranty coverage covers the CLA 35 for 48 months or 50,000 miles, but Mercedes provides various paid-for alternatives to increase coverage.
The NHTSA is yet to review the 2021 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 and the IIHS only has a partial review for the previous-generation. But improvements made to this model should see it pass successfully when a rating is bestowed upon it.
In the event that the various safety systems can't compensate for a driver's lack of talent or overenthusiastic nature, the CLA 35 packages eight airbags, including side curtain and dual front knee airbags, within its svelte body. Also included are a variety of post-collision SOS systems. However, before that all happens, you'll need to somehow overpower ABS, EBS, brake assist, a three-stage ESP system, and other driver assists like attention assist, blind-spot assist, and crosswind assist. A standard rearview mirror can be replaced with a surround-view camera, and park sensors and automatic parking functionality can remove that chore from your to-do list, too. Then there's the optional slew of Active Everything Assists that will keep you in your lane, change lanes for you, steer for you, and even navigate a traffic jam with almost no input from you.
I approached this review with apprehension towards the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 as my previous dealing with these junior AMGs had been less than satisfactory. But Mercedes has pulled a rabbit out of the hat and taken the AMG-branded CLA from pitiful attempt to genuine competitor. The engine is smooth, punchy, and effective, the chassis finally dynamically talented enough to deserve an AMG badge, and the styling a straight knock-out that Ali would be proud of. There are pitfalls, like a dimwitted dual-clutch 'box, the inability to overcome the FWD bias, and the cramped rear seats, and some may not be fans of the techno-explosion of an interior that Mercedes has devised, but on the whole, there's very little to fault. The days of sports sedans dripping with feel and emotion are, unfortunately, long behind us, but what Mercedes-AMG has done is transform an FWD-based commuter into a fast, luxurious, and dynamically talented sports coupe that has left the BMW M235i Gran Coupe for dead. If that doesn't tell you a story of how far BMW has fallen, then I'm not sure what will.
There's no way to sugarcoat the fact that the asking price of the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 is not for the fainthearted. At a starting MSRP of $47,850, you're paying $1,000 per tenth of a second on the 60 mph dash, and that's before options and the obligatory $1,050 destination charge. A mechanically identical A35 asks $2,000 less, but in the realm of four-door coupes, you pay for style. To that end, a fully-loaded CLA 35 tops $71,000, but with specs that'll make a technophile drool and a mid-2000s supercar feel like a horse-drawn cart, technologically speaking.
You'd better accept the price as only one model of the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 is available. As the entry-level AMG in the CLA-Class lineup, it packs AWD powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-four with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
LED lighting, AMG styling, a panoramic sunroof, and 18-inch wheels are all par for the exterior, while inside, 12-way power seats upholstered in faux leather, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, 64-color ambient LED lighting, and push-button start all ship at no additional cost. The latest MBUX infotainment is housed on dual 10.25-inch screens with touch functionality, augmented by touchpad, steering wheel, and voice control, and embedded with full Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. Standard safety specs include eight airbags, attention assist, and blind-spot assist, while three-stage ESP ties into the car's performance aspirations.
The sky's the limit when it comes to options, as you might have guessed when seeing the aforementioned $23,000 gulf between a base and a fully-loaded CLA 35. Among the plethora of options, you'll find active LED headlights and automatic high beams as part of the $900 Exterior Lighting Package, while the $1,550 AMG Aerodynamics Package requires the $750 AMG Night Package to add blacked-out winglets and spoilers to the CLA 35. Inside, sports seats can be replaced by heated multicontour AMG Performance items at $3,270 in standard form and $3,470 in 'Advanced' guise, heated and ventilated sports seats will cost $950 extra, and an AMG Performance steering wheel can be equipped in various finishes at between $400 and $600. The AMG Drive Unit controls add another $400.
Keyless access can be equipped for $550 standalone or as part of the $800 Premium package, which also adds auto-dimming mirrors with power-folding functionality, while a $1,295 Multimedia Package equips navigation, speed limit assistance, and augmented video navigation. Additional safety can be equipped via a $1,700 Driver Assistance Package with a slew of semi-autonomous functionality, or through the vastly simplified Parking Assistance Package which adds a surround-view camera and park assist for $1,090.
Lastly, worthwhile standalones include a $1,100 AMG head-up display, an $850 Burmester sound system, $200 wireless device charging, $250 for AMG Track Pace telematics, or $990 for adaptive damping.
While we'd love to save you some money and say a base CLA 35 will be enough, it won't be. In our books, the best one for the money is specced in Sun Yellow with the AMG Aerodynamics package and 19-inch multispoke alloy wheels. Inside, AMG Performance Seats with heating look spectacular in the no-cost Neva Grey/Black MB-Tex combination with aluminum trim, and a Nappa/Dinamica AMG performance steering wheel looks and feels exceptional, albeit without the AMG Drive Unit. The Parking Assistance Package is a must-have, as are adaptive damping, the AMG head-up display, and the Burmester sound system, and the Premium Package is good value-for-money convenience paired with keyless entry. All in, it rings up at $59,550. The bad news is that that's $4,200 more than the base price of a more powerful CLA 45.
The difference between the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 and 45 is more than just a single digit in their names. While they may both be AMG variants of the standard CLA-Class with 2.0-liter engines, AWD, and DCT gearboxes, there's a vast difference that goes beyond just a $7,500 price difference. For starters, the CLA 45 looks more aggressive with a Panamericana grille and angry front bumper design, but behind that grille, the 2.0-liter turbo-four has been dialed up to produce 382 hp and 354 lb-ft - increases of 80 hp and 59 lb-ft over the CLA 35 that result in an eight-tenths-of-a-second-quicker 0-60 mph dash. It's partly down to the CLA 45's newfangled eight-speed DCT with launch control, but the speed is augmented by honed handling dynamics, courtesy of a rear torque vectoring differential that affords it a Drift Mode.
These two are vastly different machines, with the CLA 35 being a mild performance Peppadew while the CLA 45 is a Carolina Reaper. Ultimately, you decide the level of heat you can handle.
Never did I think I'd live to see the day when a Mercedes-Benz is a sharper driving tool than the equivalent BMW, but after the calamity that was the year 2020, nothing should surprise me. This pairing is that day dawning, as the CLA 35 has promptly out-BMWed the BMW M235i Gran Coupe. On paper, both are remarkably similar - four-door coupes with AWD, automatic gearboxes, and 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinders within 2 hp of 300. The BMW has a little more torque at 331 lb-ft to the Merc's 295, but is only one-tenth quicker to 60 mph.
In every other driving metric, the Mercedes is dominant, handling with more finesse, cornering at higher speeds, and instilling trust in the driver when the BMW delivers only apprehension. The Merc is comfier, has a better interior design, a sweeter engine note, and a better infotainment system. The only areas it loses out in are trunk space and rear headroom - both of which are remarkable from the smaller BMW - and the fact that it costs $2,350 more. The CLA 35 is what BMW wanted to build, but it seems Bavarian engineers got the brief in another language entirely.
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